06/04/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Father Knew It First

Rachel Hillestad

I sit here in the heart of an airplane. I watch men with bright orange vests and an orange glowing stick in each hand give the plane's pilot directions on this dark, wet night. My four children, young and free of care, have been handed over to trusted friends.

My dad will be the one to pick me up at the airport. My youngest looks so much like his mother.

We will make that long and winding trip to that small little North Dakota town just a little south of the Canadian border, the droplets of that same wet night speeding on past our periphery, forcing us to acknowledge the dark, hard road and the dark in front of us. All around us.

We drive to see the woman who has lived into her second century of life. His mother-in-law, my grandmother. She is ready to leave us.

My father has always been strong and secure; the only time I didn't think so was when I was in the 6th grade and he ripped his chin open on a low-standing tree while playing basketball with my brothers.

He is 71 and still bears the scar. "That is what happens if you live long enough," he says.

I was shocked to see him bleed.

I honestly don't even know what to do with these conflicting emotions about those who go before me being... well, bleedable. mortal. Human.

The comfort is this: what I think about it doesn't matter, because this isn't about me. I want my grandmother to die because it is the nature of things and because she cannot be healed on this earth.

Still, I do not want her to go.

I do not want to see her bleed, or to watch my father cry over her. I do not want to acknowledge that the same raw strength I see in him is the same raw strength that has been called forth generation after generation, in the letting-go moments.

The father teaching his son teaching his daughter to let go.

She will be free, you know. He knows this too, which is why tears fall freely from his eyes and onto her small, cold hands.

"You treated me like a son from the first day I met you," he sobs, I right along with him.

She smiles briefly and nods, almost imperceptibly.

It is enough.

The burden of being mortal will be lifted up, up and up off of her, a plane relinquishing itself of earth.

And there we all will stand, watchmen with flickering orange sticks to launch her into eternity.

My father has taught me so many things over the last 35 years. When I think of the most important one, it is that our parents do bleed. They are human. When it is time to let them go, we must play air man and lead them on down the runway, knowing full well that once the plane is gone the runway is littered with tears and memories.

Some day, no less than 30 years from now, of course, it will be me helping my father go. I will do it well, because he showed me how to do it.

Love, like anything worth doing at all, is selfless.

I know this, but I only know it because my father knew it first.